Our African names and culture


Contacts between people of different ethnic, racial and religious groups often have entailed one group giving up its names or surnames in favour of those of another. This is done for a variety of reasons, good or bad.

Should someone worry about it?

“What is in a name?” asks Juliet in the play Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare.


“A rose by another name smells just as sweet.” That was her points of view.

But there are other views about names.

In the late 1960s, while I was working as a civil servant, I was suddenly instructed to fly to Geneva to join a ministerial delegation. I had first to fly to Harare and board a South African plane, the largest type I ever had boarded before.


Those were the days of apartheid when whites and blacks were not expected to sit side by side in a room. The plane was almost full. But at the rear where I and a Zimbabwean were accommodated, there were two vacant seats. I thought there were only two blacks but later I saw coming from the front a tall black man who had been given a seat in the middle of the plane close to white people. He was a black American with European names. The person reserving seats had mistaken him for a white man because of his European name.

So, there was something in the name.

Names tell a story, especially first names. Parents give a baby a name that reflects the state of their minds at the time the baby is born. When they are in a happy mood they give such popular names as Kondwani (Rejoice), Chimwemwe (Smile) or Kholiwe (Satisfied).

When the baby is born while the parents are miserable they may give names such as Chisoni or Vitima, both of which mean sadness.

Some names express pessimism, such as Iphani or Komani both of which mean kill. Parents give such names if previously a baby has died in the family and they suspect foul play by someone.

Surnames or clan names tell their own stories. The once famous Central Region author Samuel Yosiah Nthala in his book Mbiri ya Achewa (History of the Chewa) tells us how typical Chewa clan names came about. As the ancestors of the Chewa, later to be known as the Maravi, were moving from the west leaving their Lunda or Luba home one night, they stopped near hills somewhere in what is now Zambia.

They were divided into family groups. For several nights one group camped on a hill, while another made square shelters at the bottom of the hill.

Those who were at the bottom referred to those on the hilltop as “A Phiri” (Hill people). Those on top of the hill referred to those at the bottom as “A Banda” (people of temporary square shelters). These names stuck.

Some clan names reflect a family’s identification with a particular animal or bird such as Jere (the great bull), Nsefu (the eland), Maseko, and fireplace stones (Mafuwa) and so on.

During contact with people of other races, Africans converted to great religions that originated in the Middle East such as Christianity and Islam. In the course of doing so they have copied both names and surnames as badges of their faith. Some have completely given up their African names, thereby discarding African traditions and culture.

This is regrettable. We as Africans should retain some identification as Africans. I doubt if there is any of the great religion which states that to be pious you must give up African names. Some of Africa’s modern founding fathers were pious. Though devout Christians or Muslims, they did not give up their African names. Leopold Sedar Senghor of Senegal and Julius Kambarage Nyerere of Tanzania as well as Hastings Kamuzu Banda of Malawi were Christian, Abubakar Tafawa Balewa of Nigeria and Ahmed Sekou Toure of Guinea (Conakry) were practising Muslims.

For reasons not clear to me, we still come across Malawians with names like Charles Williams, Mary James, Amina Rajabu or Rashid Seleman. Why do you not add African middle or surname?

It is said that some of them feel themselves smarter and greater with names like these while others want to conceal their identity.

The advantage of preserving original names and clans can be seen when you look at the largest Ngoni settlements in Malawi, Mzimba and Ntcheu. A Zulu or Swazi passing through Mzimba would not understand the language spoken there but would easily recognise some villages clan and personal names: For instance, village names like Ekwendeni, Emthunzini or Elangeni, clan names such as Nkosi, Mhlanga, Jere or personal names like Sunduzwayo, Kholiwe and Mzamose.

In Ntcheu, due to the invasion and civil war at the end of the 19th century, their community life was shattered. They went about dropping Ngoni clan names, adopted the custom of using fathers or grandfathers personal name instead such as Chinyama, Katola or Kwataine. These names cannot be traced in Swaziland or Natal.

Africans who were taken to America gave up their African names.

Today, all they can say is “We came from Africa”, but from which ethnic group or country they cannot say.

Europeans who emigrated to America preserved their names and you can tell whether someone is of English, Scottish or German origin.

Let us preserve our African names and stop making ourselves copycats of other people.

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